PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Alarming numbers from the CDC show 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in just one year from March 2020 to April of this year. Experts say the pandemic and the rise in fentanyl use are partly to blame.
Military veteran and Sharpsburg resident Kenneth Aquiline, 36, has been sober since 2017, but he says it wasn't an easy road getting there. He says he's lost many friends to addiction over the years and is doing what he can now to help others turn their lives around.
"I should have a tombstone somewhere with my name on it," said Aquiline.
Instead, Aquiline is alive to share his story. He spent six years in the Marines, got hurt in Iraq in 2009 and as a result, started taking a lot of pain medication.
"Eventually the pain meds ran out and when I got out of the military, I turned to heroin. I actually overdosed roughly 10 to 15 times," said Aquiline.
He says he was lucky to be saved by Narcan many times and eventually got the help he needed to get sober.
"By the grace of God I found that through going to the VA, through getting mental health help, through getting help, I do participate in 12 step programs and have a support group and faith in a God that helps me stay clean," said Aquiline.
However, he says two of his close friends weren't so lucky. One overdosed on fentanyl last year.
"I had literally seen him at a meeting together, we were talking that Sunday, and then I was at work and I got the call that they had found him overdosed. Every time we take that drug, it's really no different than playing Russian roulette," said Aquiline.
He still thinks about what he could have done to help both of them.
"Why didn't I call this person more? Maybe if I would've been harder on him...What if I would've pushed him?" said Aquiline.
That's why he's now using his recovery and experiences to help others.
"I get to give Narcan and save lives. I get to watch people who were like me, hopeless and literally marching toward death, I get to watch God come into their life and them get everything back and help someone else," said Aquiline.
Statistics from OverdoseFreePA show fentanyl was the most frequently identified substance found in people who died of an overdose last year in southwestern Pennsylvania's four largest counties of Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington and Butler.
On Wednesday, state leaders announced they're trying to get Naloxone, commonly called Narcan, into the hands of as many Pennsylvanians as possible to prevent overdose deaths. Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Jen Smith says doing this could save more lives.
Since 2014, the state has allowed the general public and first responders to get Narcan from their local pharmacies. More recently, Pennsylvania partnered with Prevention Point Pittsburgh and Next Distro to support a statewide mail-based program for people requesting it. Smith says the pandemic is one of the main contributing factors to the number of overdoses the state has seen recently.
"These efforts have been amplified coming off of a near record-setting year of fatal overdoses in 2020. The COVID pandemic upended a lot of progress we have made in recent years but also allowed us to swiftly respond to challenges that rose to the surface during that time," said Smith.
State leaders say another way to combat the opioid epidemic is to reduce the stigma of addiction. She says addiction is a disease and Narcan is a medication that can help.
Smith says Pennsylvanians can watch a training video and get Naloxone free or get it at a local pharmacy. For more information, click here.
for more features.